Good for yew: The trees and gardeners that help make cancer drugs
Clippings from yew trees which have stood in a Weston-super-Mare cemetery for more than 150 years are being used to make drugs to fight cancer.
The clippings from the trees, which were planted in 1853 and line the avenue leading to the chapel at the Milton Road Cemetery, will be used to make anti-cancer drugs Docetaxel and Paclitaxel.
The clippings are used as the raw material by pharmaceutical companies for the production of the drugs, used primarily to treat breast and ovarian cancers.
Both can also be made synthetically, but clippings, including soft shoots and needles, are still collected and used across Britain.
Groundstaff at the cemetery, which is operated by Weston Town Council, discovered how clippings from the trees are used while working on a project to restore the bell tower at the ancient chapel.
The clippings were sold to Doncaster-based Friendship Estates, which has been supplying the pharmaceutical industry since 1992. Previously, the clippings were shredded and used a mulch around the cemetery.
Grounds manager Rob Thurston said: "We were doing some research on the cemetery as part of the work to restore the bell tower when we discovered that yew tree clippings can be used to make anti-cancer drugs.
"So we approached Friendship Estates to see if it would be interested in taking clippings from our trees.
"It was the soft, young shoots of the trees which were collected and this new growth can be collected between July and October each year."
All parts of the yew tree, in particular the yew needles, contain poisonous alkaloids which prevent human cell division.
Docetaxel was first made from the needles of the European yew tree, while Paclitaxel is made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.
The required chemical needed for the drugs is concentrated in the green, actively growing parts of the plant.
This is the first time the town council has collected the clippings for use by the pharmaceutical industry with the first batch of 869kg generating more than £300.
This season's clippings – 869kg of which generated £300 for the council coffers – were cut on to sheets in order to keep them free from soil, leaves and stones, and stored in the cemetery's chapel.
A spokesman for Friendship Estates said: "There has been a recent increase in demand for the material to produce the drugs."
Friends of Milton Road Cemetery chairman, John Crockford-Hawley, said he hoped the clippings would now be harvested annually, adding: "There's a philosophical, medical and even a small financial reward in this harvest. Who would have thought that from a place of tranquil repose such an aid to life would come forth?"
Clippings are collected from sites right across the UK – from Bodmin to Inverness – including Cleeve Nursery, in North Somerset, which also acts as a collection point between July and October.
Owner Felicity Down said: "We have been a collection point for a number of years and it's good to think we are helping in the fight against cancer in our own little way."